The U.S. Supreme Court's validation of a sweeping campaign finance reform law was hailed Wednesday as a “landmark victory for the American people” by its primary sponsor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
The high court’s 5-4 decision rejected a First Amendment challenge to the new law brought by a coalition of unlikely allies that included the NRA, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Republican National Committee and AFL-CIO.
The law aims to ban unregulated money and last-minute attack ads from federal elections.
The law’s key provision prohibits national political parties or candidates for federal office from raising and spending soft money. That is money raised outside the limits that apply when money is given directly to a campaign.
Those funds typically come from corporations, labor unions and special-interest groups. There were no federal caps on how much those special interests could give to political parties before passage of the law in 2002.
‘‘The toxic link between donors who write six-figure checks and people in power at the highest levels of government has been severed,’’ said supporter Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, a national organization for government reform.
But others slammed the court's opinion as a curb on political speech that should be protected under the First Amendment.
‘‘This is a sad day for the Constitution,’’ said the NRA’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre.
The McCain-Feingold Act — named for its chief Senate sponsors, McCain and Democrat Russell Feingold of Wisconsin — also restricts state parties from raising and spending soft money to aid candidates for federal elected offices.
Other provisions of the bill prohibit corporations, unions or other
organizations from using soft money to finance television and radio ads to directly influence a federal election within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election.
That is the most troubling aspect of the law and the court's decision to uphold it, said Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz.
Hayworth has long been the target of attack ads financed by labor unions. In 1996 alone, labor unions spent $2.1 million in television ads blasting Hayworth, he said.
Hayworth said that, despite being the target of those attack ads in Arizona, he believes banning unions and other organizations from those last-minute campaigns is wrong.
“That's their right as Americans to free speech,” Hayworth said of the union ad campaigns. “The most damning effect of this is the limitation on public discourse.”
In the 2000 election cycle, the major political parties raised more than $300 million in soft money contributions from just 800 donors, far above those allowed for actual electioneering, according to Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote the majority opinion.
‘‘Our treatment of contribution restrictions reflects more than the limited burdens they impose on First Amendment freedoms,’’ said the majority opinion. ‘‘It also reflects interests in preventing both the actual corruption threatened by large financial contributions and the eroding of public confidence in the electoral process.’’
In one of the dissenting opinions, Justice William Rehnquist argued that Congress ‘‘should not be able to broadly restrict political speech in the fashion it has chosen.’’ Justice Antonin Scalia accused the court of having ‘‘smiled with favor upon a law that cuts to the heart of what the First Amendment is meant to protect: The right to criticize the government.’’
While it does impose restrictions on state parties' use of soft money to aid candidates for federal offices, it does not impede their ability to raise money to assist candidates for state and local offices, the justices wrote.
But in practice, that distinction is not so simple, according to the heads of the Arizona Democratic and Republican parties. Activities like voter registration drives and efforts to get voters to the polls benefit both state and federal candidates, said Jim Pederson, chairman of the state Democratic Party. Sorting through the new layer of regulations will complicate those efforts, he said.
“The line is a gray one and that's what we have to be careful of,” Pederson said.
Bob Fannin, chairman of the state Republican Party, said huge loopholes in the law are already being exploited by special-interest donors. He cited billionaire George Soros, who has funneled millions of dollars into an independent group to run advertising campaigns against Republican President Bush.
Bush, who signed the measure into law in March 2002 with some misgivings about its constitutionality, said Wednesday through his spokesman that he ‘‘believes that overall it helped improve the system’’ and that the new decision ‘‘will help bring clarity to the process.’’
The Democrats who are seeking to replace Bush were more enthused. ‘‘McCain-Feingold is a very important first step toward the sweeping campaign reform this country really needs,’’ said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. ‘
‘I’m glad the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of this law.’’ Stevens and O'Connor made it clear in their opinion that the new law will not stop the influence of soft money in federal campaigns.
“Money, like water, will always find an outlet,” they wrote.
- The Boston Globe, New York Times, Dallas Morning News and Associated Press contributed to this report.